Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Matter of Faith: We must welcome the stranger

Many faith traditions remind us to welcome the stranger. Yet how big is the welcome table in a post-Sept. 11 world? How welcoming are faith communities when we are divided along political, theological and social lines?

It takes building relationships, opening hearts and practicing welcome to offer a place where people can seek their truth in love. For myself as a Unitarian Universalist, welcome is the highest practice of honoring the sanctity and inherent worth of others.

How we welcome others defines our community - whether it is our family, friends or spiritual community.

It takes a risk to welcome people different than ourselves, yet when we do we are invited into new experiences and relationship.

Many faiths have tenets about welcoming the stranger. For some Christians welcome is embodied in the practice of open or common table, where all persons are welcomed to communion. This embodies the welcome of Jesus for the stranger and marginalized.

The Quran tells us, "It is righteousness to give of yourself and your substance, out of love for Allah, to your kin, to orphans, to the needy, to the wayfarer, to those who ask, and for the ransom of slaves ..." The Hindu scripture Taitiriya Upanishad tells us, "The guest is a representative of God."

A humanist might say that welcoming the stranger recognizes the inherent worth of all persons. An earth-centered standpoint might recognize that we are infinitely interrelated on a soul level with one another - even with the trees and earth that shelter and support us. On a given Sunday in a Unitarian Universalist congregation - whether atheist or Christian, gay or straight - we come together in community.

Yet welcome is a two-way street, and the respect goes both ways. The Catholic theologian Henri Nouwen said, "We are not hospitable when we leave our house to strangers and let them use it any way they want. An empty house is not a hospitable house ... When we want to be really hospitable, we not only have to receive strangers but also to confront them by unambiguous presence, showing our ideas, opinions and lifestyles clearly and distinctly."

Welcome extends inwardly as well as outwardly and must take into account safety, congregational covenant, and honoring all persons.

We must move beyond our comfort zones, enter into challenging conversations and challenge ourselves to think about who is really welcome into our lives. When we truly welcome the stranger, we invite ourselves into deeper relationship with the holy. We cross the artificial divides of belief and background and reach toward the sanctity of our shared humanity